Okay, fine, here’s my unpopular opinion
Go Buzzfeed, Go
Last night and this morning, I watched my feeds erupt with 1)pee jokes (I giggled at some of them, I admit it!) and 2)journalists and fellow journalism professors excoriating Buzzfeed for publishing the unsubstantiated report from a former UK intelligence official alleging that Trump has deep ties to Russia that could be used to blackmail him.
And I thought to myself, stay out of it, Brown. Journalists do have a tendency to see most ethical quandaries nice and neat in black and white. There is a RIGHT WAY! Anybody that doesn’t see it THAT WAY hates the truth! And who wants to wade into that. “Brown teaches her students the truth doesn’t matter, OMG!” Arrrggggh. (If you don’t believe me on this, wade into a debate about objectivity vs. advocacy once. It has about as much nuance as getting hit on the head with a sledgehammer.)
But then I was walking home from an errand, and I thought, well, shit, I don’t want to be all spiral of silence about this. Also, I realize I’m not clearly not the only one with this opinion, although as far as I can tell we are definitely in the minority. So here’s your hot take, which is probably the last thing you need.
Look, I’m gonna say this first. I believe with every ounce of my being that verification is the MOST important thing that journalists do. As my former boss and mentor Bill Kovach once said, this is about as close as I get to religion. Verification is what sets us apart from everything else out there. We report, we check facts, we ask questions. This is critical to our role in democracy. Really, it is everything.
However, I think there is a fundamental difference between GATEKEEPING and VERIFICATION. I do not find the notion that the process of verification must always go on behind closed doors to be particularly ethically compelling — if anything, I find it a mite bit patronizing.
Saying that you are working to confirm the information in document X, but have been unable to verify its claims thus far is a completely different thing than just publishing something without any verification and passing it off as truth. The latter is journalist malfeasance of the highest order. The former is a complicated decision to make to be sure, but one that, in some circumstances, is the best way you can serve your audience.
At the very minimum, I think we dilute our moral force when we equate the two.
This is not a new philosophical “take” by any means. Elements of Journalism, which was written following extensive research on journalists’ own descriptions of their values, talks about how digital media means we may need to become sensemakers rather than gatekeepers, serving as referees for information that, whether we like it or not, is already bouncing around the public sphere despite its questionable veracity. It talks about how transparency is key to the true meaning of objectivity.
But Kovach and Rosenstiel were clear that publication decisions still had to be made carefully on a case-by-case basis — there’s no formula. And CNN’s much more vague report notwithstanding, the full report on Trump was NOT in the public eye before Buzzfeed published it, although it was apparently bouncing all over Washington and many other reporters had seen it.
So, yeah, it’s tricky. I can understand the arguments *against* publishing it, but at the same time, I applaud Buzzfeed’s decision. This is an extremely newsworthy story, given that it deals not with a private citizen or a hapless celebrity but the President Elect of the United States and a massive potential national security risk. The source of the document was believed to be credible, and the report was being taken seriously at the highest levels of our government, according to this piece by The Guardian.
And again, Buzzfeed makes it very clear that there is “serious reason to doubt the allegations.” They are by no means trying to pass this off as fact.
Buuuut the poor public! They will never trust us now! We are just feeding into the whole “fake news” thing. Right?
Well, first of all, sorry, but if the best case for your value you can make to the public is that still mostly male, white, upper-class editors will decide exactly when you get to know something, I think you may be misreading the mood a little bit. I’m not saying this is necessarily FAIR, but…we have some big time other work to do in my opinion before that argument is going to have special resonance.
But much more importantly, how do you know ANYTHING about how the decision to publish this report affects public trust? It might indeed reduce trust; or it might increase it. We don’t really know. As Shannon McGregor, who is getting her PhD ot UT-Austin, said on Twitter earlier today,
We need further study on this. Making assumptions about what people trust or don’t in the age of social media isn’t particularly helpful. I can defend a hypothesis that people trust Buzzfeed MORE because they just gave them what they had with full disclosure. It makes journalists feel important to believe that our gatekeeping is central to public opinion, but that doesn’t make it real.
Also, to assume that readers can’t understand or parse “serious reason to doubt the allegations” is, as I said before, patronizing. Now, sure, plenty of partisans will believe whatever they want to believe. But that is absolutely true even IF every single item in the report was 100% vetted and turned out to be true. (Please see: The many excellent pieces of journalism written during the campaign on Trump’s fraudulent business dealings, comments on women, etc.) I do not think that acting as strict gatekeepers is going to somehow magically convince partisans to trust us. If we have ANY chance of that — and I’m not sure we do regardless, to be honest — I think the only way is to show our work and hope to hell that over the long haul they see that there is a method there, and that it works, and that it matters.
Finally, just to be clear, although I think I already said this, yes I think there are circumstances in which publishing something that isn’t verified yet causes serious ethical harm to the subjects of the report and must be avoided. I just don’t find that to necessarily be true in this case at all.
*Please just throw tomatoes, not shoes or other harder projectiles*